Reforming the world's city networks: How to make global urban governance powerful?

Written by Andrew Stevens and Jonas Schorr on 3 June 2013

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Andrew Stevens and Jonas Schorr examine city network associations, arguing that instead of grandiose schemes like a global senate of mayors, we must concentrate on creating popular democratic demand for city networking, and on giving more power and media visibility to the knowledge exchange efforts that cities already pursue.

While an urban version of grand global institutions like the United Nations General Assembly are alluring, thinking up new agencies may be less important than reforming and strengthening the knowledge and policy exchange efforts that already exist. Photo: Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs

If the urban century is being ill-served by current global institutions, there is no shortage of solutions emerging from leftfield. The political scientist Benjamin Barber contends that global problems require city mayoral solutions to 'get things done' amid national bickering. One provocative idea Barber contemplates in his forthcoming book If Mayors Ruled the World is what is effectively a global senate of mayors. Though formalising the role of cities in democratic global governance also raises issues of representation: in a world governed by cities, who speaks for the countryside?

Barber's provocative notion chimes with a growing concern for alternatives in light of creaking global institutions seemingly unable to solve the issues of the day. In a recent Monocle piece Nader Mousavizadeh, CEO of Oxford Analytica, sees the solution to cities' lack of global political clout vis-à-vis nation-states in forming a 'United Cities' to replace the United Nations, with name-plated summits attended by the likes of 'Mumbai', 'Rio de Janeiro', 'Hong Kong', etc. What the already existing United Cities and Local Governments and indeed the C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group make of this is unknown, though they would be the most suitable stage for discussion on these issues. 

However, replicating vote-based assemblies along the UN model cannot be an answer, as it simply embeds the familiar values of nation-state politics on the world stage. Global institutions designed to counterbalance competing national interests, as the UN does, do not lend themselves to the dynamics required between cities. As Bell and de-Shalit point out in The Spirit of Cities, cities are nowadays generally unable to go to war against each other, and so have no need for the mediating and intervening aspects of such bodies. It is hence more important for cities to be embedded in institutions that promote collaboration rather than compromise and majority rule. In any case, cities with their rapidly changing population profiles cannot be pegged to any system of qualified majorities or permanent memberships in such institutions.

A more market-oriented idea has been proposed by Parag Khanna, who calls for cities to be developed as a new asset class on the world's stock markets alongside emerging market regions; like climate, fresh water or food, cities should be thought of as commodities to be priced and optimised for maximum benefit. Supported by a city performance index, the price of bonds would be determined by a city's comparative performance mirroring its financial, economic and environmental health, measured globally and in real time. As he acknowledges, the immediate shortcoming is that such comparative urban data does not exist in such a comprehensive manner, despite efforts by the World Bank, the University of Toronto, UN-HABITAT and various other agencies to produce it.

More power, not more structures

While now is the time to consider drastic and visionary measures, we need to bring this debate back to what already exists. The answer to the current incoherence of our global urban governance regime is not necessarily to dream up new kinds of structures, but to create more visibility and power for cities' current efforts. Consider the constellation of sister city partnerships, global city networks and local government associations. As a first step, these need to be consolidated into a more visible system of city linking that rests on public electoral support. This requires both policyholders and the general public to accept that metropolitan prosperity in the twenty-first century relies on a global framework for knowledge transfer and economic partnership between cities, in particular to tackle those problems that are simultaneously global and urban, and to realise the opportunities they afford. In concrete terms, this means mayors should be expected to present a foreign policy vision for inter-city cooperation as part of their general policy platform. And voters should demand as much.

There is also an educational responsibility to be carried by the global media industry. For example, in light of stalling climate negotiations at the inter-national level, the media ought to highlight the progress and pledges made by mayors through forums such as the C40 Large Cities Group. It would also mean that news reporting on global issues such as environmental pollution, climate change, poverty or terrorism must be linked to the local scale where actions are being taken — in our cities and neighbourhoods. Local politics might not (yet) be as 'sexy' to report as international summits, but it's arguably as important and nearer to the lifeworlds of the urban majority.

The evident rise of networked governance across the world's cities means that we cannot afford to sit still and wait for this inchoate and complex set of arrangements to simply 'sort itself out'. And we can't necessarily articulate now what the 'perfect' global cities organisation would look like because it currently doesn't exist. The point is to stir up serious and realistic debate that raises the voice and visibility of cities across the various levels of governance and among the media and general public. This is not done by creating more city networks, but by ambitiously reforming what's already there.

Categories: Governance

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